The Professional Approach
Rowden Fullen (1990’s)
- Appraise your game.
- The physical aspect.
- Match play.
- The mental approach.
- Be a winner.
- The future - where to from here.
1. APPRAISE YOUR GAME
How many of you have given much thought to the social values of table tennis? It never ceases to amaze me that you can go to a strange town, ring up the local league secretary and immediately there is interest. People want to know your level, if you are interested in playing in a team, helping with coaching groups etc. Our sport serves as an instant passport to a circle of new friends.
Perhaps you are one who plays purely because you enjoy the game and have no great ambitions. You play primarily for the social aspects and find it relaxing to have a night out once or twice a week with like-minded mates. If this is your approach, good luck to you. You will probably usually play well because your game will be relaxed and natural and there will be no great pressures on you to break records or do anything out of the ordinary. However you will have to be prepared to accept that there will be levels you can’t reach, standards you cannot achieve and players who will beat you purely because they practise more often or are more fiercely competitive.
On the other hand you may fall into the category of a number of players who although they are quite competitive, tend to be rather rigid in the way they play and in the way they think. Many players achieve a level and are satisfied with this. They aren’t really prepared to put in the exertion and the effort to raise the standard of their game or to aim for new heights. Even many young players come under this classification. They become set in their ways, play in a fixed pattern which brings them limited success, but in reality they have stopped moving forward. Their game is stagnating and nothing new is taking place. There is no progress or development.
Table tennis is above all about adaptation. If you cannot change your game to cope with the opponent’s tactics then it’s difficult to be a winner. If you are not continuing to change then you are not developing. True we all play the game for different reasons and of course we cannot all be world champions. But there’s no reason why we should not reach our full potential or as nearly as possible. To accomplish this we must first have the right approach and the right mental attitude.
Whatever your reasons for playing and at whatever levels you play, there will also be days when you play badly and need to call on your reserves of experience. The ability to keep on going even through difficult patches singles out the player who has the more professional approach. The quality of professionalism is often emphasized by the degree of planning, preparation and on-going analysis that goes into your game. Many players find in fact that the keeping of statistics during the playing season helps them and is of long-term value. Common factors start to emerge. They often lose against a certain style of player or have problems against some types of racket. Just how scientific you are prepared to be in your approach is up to you. Like we all do, you play in part because you enjoy the game, but I am sure you will find that if anything a more professional approach will enhance rather than inhibit this enjoyment.
2. THE PHYSICAL ASPECT
If you want to be good you will quite simply make yourself fit enough to achieve the level you want to play at. There is little point here in detailing exercise programmes or spending much time on fitness aspects. Almost every book written on table tennis caters quite fully for the physical side of the game.
What we can do however is to stress some of the benefits of fitness. All coaches are agreed on the mobility factor - increase your mobility and you increase the level of your play. You get more shots back and you get them back more correctly because you have more time to get into the correct position to play them. You are better placed to feed in spin or power to your stroke. But mobility has long-term advantages too - you will for instance be able to play at a higher level longer and to continue playing later in life. Why give up playing at forty when you can continue getting enjoyment out of the game till sixty-five or over?
What too about the benefits of good fitness on the mental outlook, your level of alertness and the ability to cope with new challenges and stresses? Most top executives have come to appreciate in these modern times that a fit body allows them to do their daily paperwork, handle meetings and make decisions that much more efficiently. They are more alert, can think out problems more quickly, can stand longer hours and still function well, are more resistant to stress and illness and recover more rapidly. It is just so with the really fit table tennis player. He has time to think, to plan tactics, to work out his opponent’s weaknesses, to evaluate where he himself is winning and losing points. He has time simply because his body does not have to operate on overload all the time and he is able to allocate other tasks to his mental computer.
Then there are the psychological advantages of fitness. If you are in good shape you are much more liable to be at ease with yourself, to ‘like’ yourself. The perfectly functioning body tends to breed emotional serenity, a calmer outlook on life and as a result you often relate better to other people. The player who loses games because of his lack of fitness and is also inadequate in tactical areas because of this, is much more likely to be the one who throws his bat around after the match. He knows inside, if he is really prepared to admit it, that much of his failure is his own fault. He wants to play at a certain level, but is unwilling or unable to get his physical shape up to the standard where he can compete effectively. As a result we get internal conflict which grows as the player continues to lose.
On the other hand the player who has performed to the limits of his potential has no cause for self-recrimination. The other player was just better on the day and this is a situation we all have to face at one time or another. If we have played to our utmost and lost then we should accept defeat gracefully. Inventing excuses for failure is of no help to anyone. Rather than trying to find a scapegoat for our loss, we must weigh and evaluate the circumstances of the day and decide what changes we need to make in our own attitudes and training to continue to progress and to move forward.
This is one of the great things about table tennis. A defeat is not the end of the world, there are an infinite number of variables in our sport. From day to day and match to match conditions alter, sometimes in your favour sometimes against. Tables change, floors are different, space, height, balls and lighting vary. The mental approach of your opponent is never exactly the same, even the element of luck may play its part. With such a number of variables a rematch does not have to have the same result - only if you let it.
The outcome of the really big top of the table clash can often be largely decided before it is played. In terms of playing skill, point for point, the players will probably be very close and half a dozen sets might well be decided 11 - 9 or deuce in the final game. Preparation becomes vital. You know the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses, the types of bats they use, their temperaments and limitations. Work out how you and your team-mates can exploit this knowledge, how you should approach the game against each individual opponent, how you can take the most out of him and wear him down, even if it may be difficult to beat him. For this cumulative effect is often vital in the big match.
You may face one opponent who is expected to take his three singles against your team. But if you can make him struggle for every point and keep him under pressure all the time, his chances of beating each successive player become less and less. Gradually you wear him down so that by the time he plays his last match he is physically and mentally weakened.
If you have home advantage then most of your problems are solved - tables, floor, lighting, the amount of space and height, the run-back distance, all these conditions will be familiar to you and you will allow for them automatically without conscious thought. If your match is at an away venue then prepare as much as you can. Use what knowledge you have - if you know the table is slow practise on a similar type of surface and arrive early so you have a good chance to get acclimatized.
The order of play is of particular importance. Work out to the best of your ability the expected order of the opposition, try to put yourself into their minds, what are they trying to achieve? Endeavour to out-think and out- manoeuvre them right from the start. Do they have a regular order, does one of their players like to finish first or last? This last-second preparation might well tip the scales in your favour.
Aim to get an early lead. Many key matches have been won by one side going 3 - 1 or 4 - 2 up, it gives the whole side confidence and disheartens the opposition. If you have one good player who will win all his games, let him finish first - games won are always worth more than games to play in the mental stakes. Equally if there is no star player but the opposing team has one weak link, a player who perhaps because of a clash of styles loses easily to one or more of your team, use this. Beat this player comprehensively early on, this may well affect him mentally for the rest of the match. It may also put pressure on his better or more experienced colleagues and give you an advantage against them.
Don’t let hostile supporters get you down, remain calm and in control of the play. Whatever your methods of ‘crowd control’, never at any time reveal a lack of confidence. The player who remains totally expressionless during matches often raises doubts in the opponent’s mind. As far as supporting your team members is concerned you should know their moods and attitudes. Some do better with a little encouragement, others are better left alone in a tight spot and constant support can distract them.
Most of us have been in the situation where we have been well ahead, leading 8 - 1 and playing fluently. We are relaxed and confident, we have the game won and it is all over barring the entry on the scorecard. Then suddenly everything starts to go wrong. Our opponent starts to play better even though there’s no possibility that he can win and 8 - 1 becomes 8 - 4. We are still not too worried, all we need is a couple of good shots - but we miss and decide to tighten up our game but to no avail, 8 - 4 becomes 8 - 7. Now we are a little worried and try to shift into a higher gear, but our opponent seems to have a new lease of life and is playing better and better. We on the other hand start to tense up a little, as the feeling we can’t win becomes a certainty and surely enough this becomes fact and we lose 9 - 11!
We let the opponent off the hook, the big question is of course why, how did it happen? What was the intangible factor that changed the game? It is far too late at 8 - 7 to ask ourselves what is going wrong, probably too late at even 8 - 5. Something happened right back at 8 - 3 or 8 - 4 that we did not appreciate or a combination of things. Because we didn’t have our finger closely on the pulse of the game we missed it. Perhaps because we were playing so well and were in such a commanding position, we relaxed or started to play ‘impossible’ shots. Whatever the reason we started to miss and to lose points. At the same time something had happened at the other end of the table. Our opponent had decided he had lost and didn’t care any more or had changed his tactics or mental approach. Whatever it was, it happened that the upsurge in our opponent’s game coincided with the period of relaxation in our own.
Our opponent started to come back and each point he won increased his confidence and decreased ours. His run should have been broken when he got at most 1 or 2 points. But we allowed him to come back and probably didn’t fully appreciate the danger till about 8 - 6, by which time we were tensing up rather than continuing to play in such a relaxed fashion. Our game started to suffer just at the time our opponent was gaining in confidence and realised he had the chance to win.
To stop any comeback early is critical. Now we are only playing to eleven-up the game can change dramatically in a very few points and the player who has the last two serves often has a good chance to win. If you are for example leading 10 - 6 or 10 - 7 and serving it is important to make the serve count and finish the game.
In any one-to-one sport such as table tennis much is in the mind. If you ask top players what they are thinking about when they are playing ‘out of this world’, usually the answer is ‘nothing’. The mind is blank and they are just ‘playing’. As soon as you start to question and to doubt then in most cases your performance suffers and you play worse. This is because you allow the conscious, thinking part of the mind to interfere with the sub-conscious, automatic reactions. In our sport you train to react automatically, so that in fact you don’t need to think about things like technique and movement. It is when it is operating on autopilot that our body is most efficient, the interference of our conscious, thinking mind more often than not only causes problems.
The conscious part of the mind should be kept free for handling tactics and identifying how you are getting ahead and why you are winning. Try to keep mental track of just how you are winning points. It’s not easy to do this and to plan tactically while you play but if you can, it will pay big dividends. You can work at this in the training hall at first. Begin by trying to keep track of the first few points, then a few more, then gradually extend this to the whole game. By applying yourself to this type of exercise, you make yourself much more alert to any change of tactics that your opponent may bring in. At the same time you can monitor yourself and your own play so that you guard against overconfidence and the urge to ‘experiment’ rather than just winning the game.
There is no quality of magic in knowing what your opponent is going to do, it’s largely a matter of a systematic approach to the game and an on-going analysis of his style of play. Bear in mind that a number of factors can contribute to you not reaching a particular ball. You may be unfit or wrong-footed, your reaction time may be slow or you may have bad movement patterns. He who anticipates correctly gets a start moving to the ball as does the player with the fastest reaction time, but the competitor with the best movement patterns will save a great deal of time and energy over a match.
The first step towards controlling the play and thus eliminating much of the need for anticipation is effective service receive. Obviously look at the angle of the racket and any last second changes in this angle. If you watch the bat arm elbow this will often indicate whether the opponent is serving topspin or backspin. Most in-swinging serves can be attacked and if you play without too much power you will return the spin to the server. The out-swinger is often a prelude to a third-ball loop or hit and you should try to return to unexpected areas of the table. Early ball receive will give the opponent less time to react.
Above all watch your opponent and his racket. After you have completed your own stroke, turn your attention to him, look at his stance and how he is moving in position to play the next shot. Just before he contacts the ball concentrate on the racket and his wrist, so that you are aware of any last-second changes in length or direction. You should then be in a position to start moving even before the opponent actually hits the ball - you will have enough clues to indicate where he is going to play.
You will often find that your opponent has certain set patterns of play and tends to use certain areas of the table regularly. If you can establish where and when then you simplify the whole process of anticipation. If you know where he is going to place the ball you can get there in good time and play a strong return. Your opponent may then be forced to alter his target area, which may well cause him problems - many players hit better to certain parts of the table than to others.
One of the factors critical to efficient anticipation is to get back to a covering position relatively central to the total angle of play after each stroke. By this we mean that after playing your stroke you automatically assess just how much of the table your opponent has available for use.
You then move to the centre (or a little to the left of centre for a right hander, position X) of the area the opponent can play to. In this way you are in the best position to cover the table. Even though this may be an effort at times this tactic enormously simplifies the whole area of anticipation; there are no easy gaps for the opponent to aim at.
6. THE MENTAL APPROACH
When you arrive at a strange venue there are a number of aspects with which you must familiarize yourself:
- The size of the hall and conditions, height, run-back, lighting, type of floor and effect this will have on the ball. Whether the floor is good for movement.
- The table, spin and speed characteristics. Is it old, new, shiny, chipped, clean?
- The type of ball.
- The bats and rubbers being used by the opponent.
- The style of the opponent. What can you learn by watching him practise or in the knock-up?
- The quality of the umpire. What you know or are able to observe.
- After you have assessed the significance of these factors, the game itself will commence. Even in the knock-up however you should look for clues as to where the opponent is weak or strong - play one or two balls slower or faster, a little more spin or a little more to the middle instead of diagonal and see how the opponent reacts.
The main thing when the game commences is to have a plan even if you have to change it after a few points. If you win the serve then you should of course be looking to use your serve and third ball to best advantage. Many young players for example start off with very potent serves, but often as the game progresses their service power wilts, more so if the points are close and an element of caution creeps in. The top players on the other hand are usually more aggressive in a tight situation and rarely retire into their shell and become defensive.
If you have to receive initially you may well plan to attack the serve or to use the early-timed, short return and try to take advantage on the fourth ball. Some players even start by pressuring the opponent’s strength, then switch to the weaker areas midway through the game. In fact any change during the course of a game, whether this be table areas, change of pace or spin, or different tactics, is good policy and will usually pay dividends. Table tennis is all about adapting to the opponent’s playing style - if this is fluid rather than fixed then adjusting to the variations becomes more difficult.
Remember that a good early lead puts the mental pressure on the opponent, the onus is on him to start playing. It is never easy to play relaxed and fluent strokes from a tense situation. Often it is a good tactic to play ‘tight’ at the start of the game, attacking players usually try to begin positively and it can take a few points to get into their stride. Equally a steady start is important against the defender or the long pimple attacker - don’t be careless and let them have the advantage of an early lead.
As the game progresses try to analyse where you are winning and losing points, the aim being to capitalize on your strengths and to minimize your weaknesses. This should be a constant process, for as you work out which measures are winning you points, the opponent may well come up with a counter and you need to look for advantage elsewhere. Bear in mind that a good service or tactic used spasmodically will often win you more points than if you use it all the time. The opponent has difficulty in adapting because he doesn’t have time to get used to it.
You may find that running an on-going analysis while you are playing is difficult, some players are better at this than others. The first thing to do is to bring this into your training sessions and make a habit of keeping track of how you are winning and losing points. Start by dividing each game into sections of four points and work with a section at a time. You’ll find it’s easier to focus on a smaller slice of the action. Gradually you find that the process becomes automatic and you can take in and remember more and more of a game.
Obviously if you go 1 - 5 down at the start the priority is to isolate just where and why you are losing points. As a pattern emerges you must then tighten up on the areas in which are at fault. On the other hand if you get ahead 9 - 7 then the emphasis of your analysis must change. Just how did you turn the game around, what are you doing differently, what aspects of your game are causing problems to the opponent?
Try too to put yourself into the other player’s mind. He also has anxieties and apprehensions and some styles or tactics will worry him more than others. It’s just a matter of finding them. Successful table tennis is in essence the art of pitting your strengths against the opponent’s weaknesses. However often at top level you see competitors playing weakness to weakness rather than allowing the opponent to use his stronger weapons. If loop-attack is your strong point for instance and you are playing a defender who revels in this type of game, why play in the way he likes?
When the score is close at 8 - 8 or 9 - 8 against a top opponent and the pressure comes on, don’t freeze up and stop thinking. This is the one time you must stay alert and keep a tight rein on your mental control. There is often the temptation to play ‘safe’. You have however reached this stage in the game by playing in a certain way, by playing your game. Try to continue in the same way. Don’t change a winning game or tactic - trust in yourself.
Above all don’t let your mind wander and start doubting, or anticipating the win. As soon as you take your mind off the matter at hand your mental grip fades and loses potency. Stay completely focused, this is the time at the last hurdle, where you need all your concentration.
If you are having problems be prepared to experiment, change your game, the spin, speed, areas of the table, your service patterns. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues for advice between games. The man sitting watching usually sees more than the one playing and sees the overall picture. If nothing seems to go right try not to lose your temper. This will be one of the first signs to the opponent that he is making a breakthrough and that you are losing mental control. Indeed this is exactly what it is, losing mental control. How can you think and plan and stay relaxed if your emotions are boiling over? And what about the effect on your opponent? He will get renewed confidence from your display! You in fact lose on all counts!
On the occasion when you are well and truly beaten, do not brood over your defeat. Think back over the game, decide where you went wrong, and plan what to do next time you meet the same competitor. Once you have exhausted all the useful knowledge from this defeat, put it completely out of your mind. It is only if you learn from your setbacks that you can grow and move forward. If you come up against a player who always seems to beat you easily, take time off to watch him play opponents against whom he always loses. Study the way they play him, the tactics they use - often you will pick up a number of pointers for the next time you meet.
7. BE A WINNER
A great long-distance runner once said - ‘At the start of a big race there may be a dozen of the world’s greatest runners on the grid. They all want to win and some even expect to win. But somewhere among them is the one guy who knows he is going to win and there is no doubt in his mind about that. This is the difference between the winner and the near-winner.’
If you can adopt this attitude within yourself it is surprising how your confidence will show through and in some indefinable way be communicated to your opponent. Your attitude and what you show to the opponent, what he sees, is more important than you may think.
You may well think that if you are playing against a nationally ranked player that your chances are very slim indeed. If you believe however that you are going to lose then you most assuredly will. What you must bear in mind at all times is that our sport is one of many variables - of different conditions from match to match, space and height variations, different floors, tables, lighting arrangements and balls. Even your opponent’s mental approach differs from day to day, the man who crushes you one day may be but a tentative shadow of himself the next time you meet. It is these variables which must give you confidence - if the right factors fall into place for you on the day or if you can influence them to do so, then anything is possible.
Let us go back to the analogy of the long-distance runner for instance. Lap after lap the champion tries to shake you off, accelerating, changing the speed, trying differing tactics, but all to no avail — when he comes into the final straight you are still there, right on his shoulder, with only 50 metres to go. What do you think is passing through the champion’s mind now? Is he still sure of his invincibility or are some doubts starting to creep in? He is after all human just as you are.
Table tennis is very much the same. If you can stay with your opponent point for point, then you can beat anyone. It is the ranked player who is the one under pressure when you are leading 9 - 8 in the deciding game and as we have already learned tension and fluent stroke-play don’t go together. You on the other hand have nothing to lose - always the most dangerous type of opponent. In the vital stages in every match, watch the opponent's face closely. Often they will reveal their doubts and this will give you confidence. Remember only to focus totally on the last one or two points. The last yard to the tape, is the one time when you cannot afford to look round or to slacken off, you must keep going!
8. THE FUTURE — WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Already in the last 4/5 years we have seen from the top Asians and one or two Europeans new heights in skills and physical fitness, which prompt us to ask - ‘Just where can we go from here?’ The standard of mental readiness, tactical knowledge, mobility, the power and consistency of stroke-play reach new levels from year to year. I think we are entering a period where a change is taking place in the basic nature of the game itself and we have to recognize this and adjust our training methods accordingly. Older players will recall that when Jacobson first brought the loop from Japan in 1960, the game changed overnight. The change taking place now is I feel more widespread rather than localized in one specific technique and affects a number of different areas.
Service and the third ball is the set piece where extensive changes have taken place and much more emphasis and coaching time must be put in to developing skills here at quite an early age. Especially we should consider the value of good length short serving and forehand dominance on the third ball. Equal if not more consideration and training time must be given to service receive, using attacking strokes together with early-timed returns and touch to obtain early advantage.
The second prime area in which we must coach dominance, especially in the women’s game, is in over-the-table play. We should be working with aspects such as early-timed pushing, blocking and topspin and killing or looping over the table - all with variation in spin, speed and touch. This is the midfield area that the Asians have revolutionized in recent years, as a result commanding the close-in play and opening up time and time again easy attacking opportunities. We must work more to create openings and win points over the table not just merely to keep the ball in play or as a link between midfield and attack.
Thirdly perhaps in Europe it is now time to start working again to develop backhand strength. Strong backhand play with good topspin seems to be very much on the decline - true we have the odd player such as Kreanga however in general most of the up-and-coming young players demonstrate little flair or feeling on the backhand wing. If we are to have any chance too of competing on equal terms with Asian players then the development of a strong backhand is really a necessity.
The last focal point must be spin and power from a deeper position. At top level the counter-loop is a major weapon and it’s vital that players come to terms with the big ball and being able to play two-wing looping rallies with a high rate of power, consistency and accuracy. This power/spin area is one we must work on and be proficient in, to make real in-roads against the Asians countries.
What perhaps stands out overall is the completeness of most top players, the all-round ability and the total commitment. They are supremely fit and able to play shots from all areas of the table. Balance has always been one of the cornerstones of our sport but athletic movement with consummate balance is now reaching new heights. Players seem to be reaching a new level of awareness of how the different parts of the body function in harmony. The mental aspects are also reaching new heights and players are more responsive than ever before to the nuances of risk-taking. Are these factors pointers to the player of the future, more ‘complete’ and professional in every aspect of the game?